Sunday 18 December 2016

Anarchism and bookshops

The Anarchist Book Fair is the longest-lasting public book event on the left in this country, regularly attracting around 3,000 people from this country and beyond to meet old friends, argue the toss at meetings and to buy and sell books. Other than the smaller regional book fairs - Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield for example - there are few places where anarchist books are seen. Few general bookshops are interested in anarchism (give or take the odd Chomsky) and there are few radical bookshops.

That has not always been the case. At one time there were 130 radical bookshops in the UK with a public magazine,The Radical Bookseller. Some seemed predestined to fail: Beautiful Stranger in Rochdale and Proletaria in Doncaster, where are you now? Others have lived long and happy lives - News from Nowhere in Liverpool celebrated its fortieth birthday a year or two back, while Freedom Bookshop and Housmans, both in London, are even more venerable. All carry anarchist books and own their own premises. That alone probably enabled them to survive when other radical bookshops were swept away.

There's always been a creative conflict between radical bookshops wanting to promote ideas and discussion and the necessity to pay the overheads and suppliers and, for those who go in that direction, paying the wages. The anarchist 56a in South London and the Cowley Club in Brighton are run entirely by volunteers and are happy so doing. There are several such shops, which are also social spaces, in membership of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB). On the other hand Housmans and Five Leaves, in Nottingham, are the only two new-book booksellers in the country signed up to the Living Wage Foundation. 

In the heyday of the radical trade many, if not most, of the bookshops were anarchist-influenced or libertarian/feminist in their structure whilst selling a wide range of books. Operating as co-ops or collectives, they saw themselves as a prefiguritive business model for how an alternative economy could work, together with collectively-run print shops, wholefood shops, community magazines and the like. Mushroom Bookshop in Nottingham (where I worked from 79-95) happily sported linked anarchist, feminist and peace signs on the shop van and was run as a collective. When I left, it was turning over £400,000 and paying better wages than commercial bookshops. Its politics at the time were strong, particularly over anti-fascism and opposition to wars, yet it ran commercially with a thriving school and library side to the business. One of the reasons the bookshop operated in this way was so that we were able to employ people with children and we did not expect workers to live in poverty in order to work there. This was also the view of Silver Moon women's bookshop which operated for some time on Charing Cross Road in London (until rent hikes put them out of business when the government changed the rules to force councils to only charge market rents for premises).

The collective model was surprisingly controversial with, in 1985, Comedia publishing What a Way To Run a Railroad: an analysis of radical failure arguing, with supporting evidence, that collectively-run businesses were a bad thing. For some years the Federation of Alternative Booksellers refused entry to shops other than collectives, thus excluding Housmans and Freedom as well as shops owned by political groups of the left. This changed after some very fraught debates with the organisation becoming the Federation of Radical Booksellers. The current Alliance has no such concerns.

Whatever the structure, radical bookshops have often come in conflict with the law and the far right. Grassroots in Manchester, Silver Moon and Gays the Word were only some of the shops which had LGBT stock seized. Mushroom and others had drug-related books taken. Muslim fundamentalists attacked the trade in general over Satanic Verses and in response Bookmarks produced a widely-circulated poster saying Fight Racism, Not Rushdie. The far right were a constant threat - stickers, letter bombs, threatening phonecalls, physical attacks on staff - these were regular occurrences. These included, for example, firebomb attacks in 1973 and 1977 on two Black bookshops in London, both called Unity Bookshop, and in 1994 an attack by fifty fascists on Mushroom in Nottingham. The more recent attempted arson attack on Freedom Bookshop is likely also to have come from the right. But really, every radical bookshop was a target, Fourth Idea in Bradford, Gays the Word in London... everyone had their story to tell.

But to prove there is nothing new under sun, Christopher Richardson, in his book A City of Light: Socialism, Chartism and Co-operation - Nottingham 1844 describes how in 1826 the local freethought bookshop was besieged by Christians for four weeks before the owner, one Mrs Susannah Wright won the day. During the siege she had to draw a pistol on two of her assailants!

Radical bookshops have a long history, their names often appearing fleetingly in the records. Anarchist bookshops from the past include a succession of shops run by the IWW supporter Charles Lahr and a number of short-lived anarchist bookshops often described as "The Bomb Shop"! Leicester, for a period, had The Black Flag bookshop, Leamington had The Other Branch and the 121 Centre on Railton Road in Brixton had a bookshop for about ten years, though the opening hours were admitted to be erratic. Much better known was Rising Free, latterly of Upper Street in Islington. There is a persistent rumour that they sourced their stock (being polite here) from other bookshops. True or not, they helped me into radical bookselling by supplying books for a college stall on sale or return back in the early 1970s in Aberdeen before Boomtown Books opened. I've probably got some remaining stock from the bookstall if you want it.... A longer lasting libertarian outlet was the commercially-owned Compendium in Camden which linked the hippy era of Better Books and Indica (in London), Unicorn (Brighton) and Ultima Thule (Newcastle) with the more political era in the wake of 1968. It closed in 2000, still profitable, when the lure of renting out the premises was too strong for its owners to resist. Compendium was famed - in those pre-internet days - for its American imports, and by publishers for its slowness in paying bills! 

Though the London Anarchist Bookfair continues, others such as the annual Socialist Bookfair, the Feminist Book Fortnight the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Book ran out of steam. The radical trade was also a significant part of Booksellers Action for Nuclear Disarmament. It was always my dream (not that I did much to bring it about) that there would be a closer alliance of radical bookshops, radical people who worked in mainstream bookselling, radical publishers, radical writers and radical librarians. All the groups mentioned did this for a period, but nothing permanent developed.  Not all former staff of radical bookshops stayed on the outside left - Days of Hope in Newcastle (known locally as Haze of Dope) included Mo Mowlam and Alan Milburn who both went on to be a Labour Cabinet Ministers but most bookshop staff are still around and often still have an involvement in the book trade.

In some ways, despite the number of shops being low nowadays, anarchist books are more available than ever, thanks to the internet but also the major operations (by left wing standards) AK Distribution and Active Distribution, both of whom have huge stalls at the anarchist bookfair but also at festivals and other suitable events. Both have an extensive mail order operation. There are also a number of second-hand book dealers selling anarchist books. The best of them is probably Northern Herald books, owned by the anarchist Bob Jones. Their stall is always the busiest at the anarchist bookfair and you can find them at many conferences of the cooperative and trade union movement. Frustratingly Northern Herald has resisted putting its stock online but they have never failed to have the book I wanted in stock!

 The number of bookshops in the Alliance is steadily growing. Some are glorified bookstalls, some are second-hand, some are social spaces, some - I am thinking of the socialist People's Bookshop in Durham - are central to the local labour movement. The London Radical Bookfair (LRB), an initiative of the ARB, complements the Anarchist Bookfair (and includes some of the same exhibitors) and has found a supportive venue at Goldsmiths in South London. The LRB will have its fifth year next year. The Alliance also has set up the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing and the Little Rebels award for children's books. Having been initially funded by Five Leaves, the current sponsor is the General Federation of Trade Unions. There is more confidence in radical bookselling now than for some time and some effort has been put into creating this skeletal structure for the movement. A lot of that is down to Housmans, which has put itself at the centre of the radical bookselling revival.

Not that it is easy to run a radical bookshop... city centre rents are prohibitive. Five Leaves survives in its city centre spot because we are in an alleyway whose only other tenant is a bookies, but this also means we are unlikely to be swept away by rent hikes. Trade discounts are better than they used to be and publishers large and small are keen to support independent bookshops. With the closure of Books Etc and Borders, Britain's publishers are very dependent on the one chain, Waterstones. Even though the number of independent bookshops fell below 1,000 for the first time in 2013 our collective contribution to the booktrade is more than the sum of its parts and it is in every publisher's interest that the indie sector survives. It used to be said that the only way to make a small fortune in bookselling is to start with a large fortune... certainly nobody expects to get rich in this business. Not least because unlike, say, a cafe, bookshops need to carry a lot of stock to be attractive and it probably takes about three years to find your feet economically. 

From almost the start Five Leaves has paid the Living Wage (not the Government's renamed minimum wage, the pretend "national living wage"). That's not been easy and we have to be fairly ruthless at business decisions to manage it. Whilst I have nothing against shops being entirely run by volunteers, I felt that I could not expect people to work for the business for less per hour than the cost of a standard paperback novel. It's also a good selling point as to why people should shop with us - we pay our staff properly. This has a resonance with many customers but particularly trade unionists. Our own annual mini-festival (Bread and Roses) has been trade union sponsored and we regularly work with unions such as UNISON, NUT and the former NUM on meetings and projects. 

Five Leaves also has a big events programme, at least weekly events in the shop, political talks, poetry readings, Irish history, transgender, anarchism, Middle East, Corbynism... you name it, we've had talks on it. Often these are in conjunction with outside groups. The talks - not all book-related - being people in and make the bookshop a significant part of the local political and literary scene. These complement our main job, which is, and always will be, offering books for sale as radical bookshops have been doing in Nottingham since 1826!

Ross Bradshaw
Ross set up Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham in 2013, which grew out of Five Leaves Publications, which has been publishing since 1995.

This article first appeared in Freedom (Winter 2016/17) 

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Roses and Revolutionaries

Big spread in today's Newcastle Journal about Roses and Revolutionaries, the story of the Clousden Hill colony by NIgel Todd (pictured). The book is launched tomorrow at Newcastle Library with Rob Turnbull's book about the Plebs League in the North East.

Monday 20 July 2015

Colin Ward and Five Leaves

I started reading Colin Ward in, I think, 1973, at Aberdeen People's Press. APP was a magazine with its own print-shop, one of many such papers throughout the country such as Leeds Other Paper and Rochdale Alternative Paper. One table at APP was devoted to “swaps”, magazines exchanged with APP, and some national magazines for sale or reference. It was there I came across Peace News, which I hooked up with for many years, and Freedom. The latter listed many local anarchist groups across the country and, tantalisingly, its appeal fund often listed significant donations collected at anarchist picnics in America, sometimes from groups with foreign language names. For a young man living in the north east of Scotland in those pre-internet days this was heady stuff.
Freedom was respected (and criticised) for being the journal of record of the anarchist movement, the paper of “official anarchism”. There were brasher papers, with more exciting layout, but often with only brief lives. With Freedom you got tradition and continuity and you had access to the work of Vernon Richards, the scarily pedantic historian Nicolas Walter and, the subject of this magazine, Colin Ward. I found some copies of Colin Ward's Anarchy which, though it closed in 1970, was still thought relevant, certainly more so than the second series produced by the group that succeeded him as editor. I've spent years trying to complete the set of 116 issues he edited.
Over the years I got to know Colin's work, starting with a wonderful series of books on work, on vandalism and on utopia for Penguin Education and of course his Anarchy in Action. This is still the book I recommend to people wanting to understand what anarchism is all about. Anarchy in Action remains in print from Freedom Press, even if the Freedom empire no longer really reflects Colin's view of anarchism.
I got to know Colin – he spoke at one or two meetings in my later and current hometown in Nottingham - and found him as good company in person as his books were to read. The long defunct Old Hammond Press published pamphlets by him on housing and on William Morris and, in 1995, I became a “proper” publisher when Mushroom Bookshop published his Allotment: its landscape and culture (jointly written with David Crouch), buying paperback rights from Faber. Typically, Colin said he did not want any royalties, simply being glad the book was again available. The Allotment kept Five Leaves Publications afloat for many years after we took over Mushroom's publishing side. We reissued several of his other books including Arcadia for All, a new title Cotters and Squatters and a selection of his essays, Talking Green. Colin preferred to emphasise the positive, with no time for “tittle tattle” about the anarchist movement. The nearest he came to that was the extended interview with David Goodway, Talking Anarchy, which we published and is now with PM Press.
Unfortunately the last few years of Colin's life were not kind to him. He was unable to complete his last commission, to edit a set of essays by other writers whose ideas chimed with his. I last saw Colin at the relaunch of Anarchy in Action at Housmans Bookshop in London. I'd been asked to speak and was proud to do so. My guess is that everyone at the launch already had the book, but everyone wanted to see Colin again and to honour one of British anarchism's most influential figures. It was, I think, his last public appearance.
Our last Colin Ward publication was Colin Ward Remembered, a collection of the speeches given at his memorial meeting – funded by those who generously chipped in to hire Conway Hall for the event. People sent so much money we were able to publish the memorial volume from the surplus.

The meeting was attended by hundreds of people Colin had influenced. In my own case the Five Leaves publishing firm and the more recent Five Leaves Bookshop would not have happened without his early encouragement and his infectious belief in doing positive things, not just damning what is wrong with the world.
This article first appeared in Anarchist Voices Volume 9 number 1

Saturday 20 June 2015

Five Leaves Bookshop, the story so far

If there was any doubt that Five Leaves is a radical bookshop it was dispelled the day after the General Election when a stream of Labour voters, Greens and assorted lefties drifted into the shop seeking comfort after the storm. We found ourselves providing an open therapy group for the forlorn (as we were ourselves). We printed up some badges – Don't Blame Me, I Voted Labour/Green/I'm an Anarchist, as well as a set carrying the Joe Hill slogan, Don't Mourn, Organise...
But how can a political bookshop survive on the high street? We were, in November 2013, the first independent of any description to open in a city centre this century, and there are not many radical bookshops around. Like any good independent, we prioritise customer service – we offer next day supply for most UK books and one or two weeks for most books from the USA. Overall, our stock might be different to most other independents but for week after week our recent bestseller list included H is for Hawk and we've sold masses of Penguin Little Black Classics. We make sure that there is enough choice for anyone coming into the shop, regardless of their views. We have one very regular customer, for example, who only buys books on Buddhism. Others head straight for our cityscape and landscape sections and quite a few other regulars never get further than poetry. Poetry is important to us, not least as it is a strong interest of one member of staff, and we regularly put on readings.
But in any case, radical books do shift – we sold over a hundred copies of Owen Jones The Establishment in hardback and the paperback hit the national best-seller charts. Many of our customers, however, come for the specialist areas of the shop – Beat writers, Travellers/Roma, Anarchism, Jewish interest (our best selling magazine is Jewish Socialist!), Transgender, Black History... We might not stock celebrity biographies but for some of our customers it is more important that 20% of our fiction is in translation, with its own dedicated section.
Five Leaves Bookshop works with dozens of local community groups including trade unions, the Quakers, Nottingham Irish Studies Group, Nottingham Women's History and various departments at our two local universities. We run an events programme with at least one meeting in the shop every week. Our own mini-Festival, Bread and Roses, attracted 850 people in its first outing, with packed events for Owen Jones, Natalie Bennett (leader of the Green Party) and cult-writer Iain Sinclair. Bread and Roses is probably the only book festival funded by trade unions. As we are not yet two, we are still taking baby steps in bookselling but the business model is working well enough to pay staff the living wage.
The bookshop grew out of the longstanding Five Leaves Publications, which has been publishing literary, social history and political books since 1995. One of our staff also works at Nottingham Writers' Studio, heading the current bid for Nottingham to become a UNESCO City of Literature. The two sides of the business are getting closer – this summer we publish a 5,000 print run book of commissioned stories by local writers including John Harvey, Alison Moore and Paula Rawsthorne as part of a literature development project in the city. It's being launched at Nottingham Waterstones, reflecting the way that everyone in the industry locally pulls together [update - had to move because of a double booking!]
If there was ever a time when independent bookshops simply waited for customers to show up we feel that is long gone. We work hard to involve and be involved with as many groups in the city as we can. And not just in the city – from its previous publishing base and now from the bookshop we work with the Leicester Centre for Creative Writing to run the annual States of Independence celebration of independent publishing. Five Leaves also set up the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing and, with Housmans Bookshop in London, initiated the London Radical Bookfair.
City centre rents make it difficult for any small businesses to survive. Fortunately our city has many alleyways and cut-throughs which provide spaces for “destination” shops. Five Leaves could not be more central to Nottingham. We are one minute from the city's main square and City Council offices and happily occupy an alleyway next to a bookies!
Now that we have been going for eighteen months we can compare like to like sales. Nottingham is a multi-cultural city and many of our customers are new to the city, joining those who have long been involved in the local literature or political scenes. We've doubled the stock since opening. Our staff has increased including appointing a part-time events workers. We are doing fine.
Nottingham increasingly seeing itself as a “rebel city”. In literature terms we draw on the tradition of DH Lawrence, Lord Byron and Alan Sillitoe. The first radical bookshop in the city was opened in 1826 by one Susannah Wright and there were several others in our local history. Nottingham's radical bookshop tradition lives on!

A slightly different version of this article will appear in Booktime magazine

Sunday 17 May 2015

Remembering David Lane

David set up the Nottingham radical bookshop Concord Books. After the shop closed Concord became a national wholesaler for vegetarian/vegan and green books which David supplied to bookshops and wholefood shops. After he retired he moved to Bakewell where he remained active in the peace movement. David was a vegan when it was hard enough to be a vegetarian. A pacifist, he refused conscription but accepted alternative service as a hospital orderly, a period he always looked back on fondly. The years before his death were not kind to him but he continued to distribute Peace News with the help of others and was always keen to know what was going on in the booktrade, at Five Leaves and Housmans.

Remembering David Lane

Sunday 7th June 2015

Starts 14:00

Details from
On Sunday June 7th at the Sumac Centre there will be an informal memorial meeting for our late supporter, life-long peace activist, conscientious objector and vegan, David Lane [1934 – 2014].

David's friend & follow campaigner, Bruce Kent, honorary vice-president of CND, will join us, as will a number of people who worked alongside David in the book trade and on many campaign trails over the years.

Vegan catering will be provided Veggies Catering Campaign, whose very existence, let alone 30 years of campaigning, came about through David's constant support.

Further information from Moyra, Chesterfield CND [email] or phone 07732 128480
or 07870 861837
or Ross, Five Leaves Bookshop:

Please pass this on to others that will wish to remember David